Crossroads at the roof of the world, Lhasa, Tibet

October 5-21, 2006




The Potala Palace is a magical sight, a massive but elegant fortress glowing white on a hilltop overlooking Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Lured by its beauty and dramatic history, we nonchalantly walked up to the ticket office early one afternoon (first visit). There was no crowd, no line, and we assumed we could enter, but instead were instructed to return tomorrow for a "tommorrow-tomorrow" ticket. Mark dutifully arrived the next morning at 8 am (second visit) and the ticket officer wrote a Chinese character, the number 5, and 11:30 in ink on his wrist. He was instructed to "return at 11:30." We returned later that morning (third visit) to the ticket window, and he was taken to a long bench and told to sit at spot number 5 in the line of waiting tourists, while I was pushed to the side. Mysteriously, at noon he was ushered to the head of the line (ahead of the Chinese tourists) and, upon presenting our passports, was issued an "Admission card for buying the entrance ticket of Potala Palace." A helpful English-speaking fellow explained we would need to arrive at the entrance gate by 9 am, the following day. We returned to the Potala the next morning (fourth visit), our passports were checked again, we cleared the x-ray security checkpoint, and at last arrived at the line to buy the ticket. After a short wait, we paid 200 Yuan and finally (finally!) entered the Palace. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside.





The Potala was the residence and seat of power for the Dalai Lamas from the mid-1600's until 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama went into exile in Dharmasala, India. The Potala now stands silent, a museum visited by throngs of chattering Chinese tour groups, some foreign visitors, and surprisingly, a steady stream of pilgrims, paying homage to the jewel-encrusted gold tombs of former Dalai Lamas--the 12.6 meter chorten of the 5th Dalai Lama is gilded with 3700 kg of gold. The Potala is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors, with steep stone staircases leading up to the roof of this massive structure, where we had stupendous, though jarring, views of the surrounding sprawling metropolis--Lhasa's population is 240,000, predominantly Chinese and growing daily--the ever present construction projects, and a huge public square and 35 meter-tall monument commemorating the "people's liberation of Tibet."

We were overwhelmed by our visit to the Potala. We were awestruck by the soaring architecture of this hand built stone fortress. It is a massive structure, but has beautiful proportions, with interior courtyards opening to the blue-blue sky above, capped by glittering gilded roofs. Light pours in through orange curtains, illuminating assembly rooms and residences, while the interior chapels are gloomy and ominous. The religious icons were amazing, sometimes frightening, and the number of statues on display is exhausting--three adjoining small rooms are filled with 3000 statues. We wandered through a maze of small chapels, a huge assembly hall, and after one turn, entered a corridor and saw the current Dalai Lama's bedroom, his clock still ticking by the bed. Most stunning of all, though, were the enormous, three-dimensional mandalas: A group of three huge mandalas are housed in one room and in another, a solitary mandala over 6m in diameter, is covered with over 170 finely detailed statues depicting the Wheel of Life.

The Potala is complex on many levels. We left with minds full of images, so many images that most are just a blur, a feeling of sadness that the Potala is now a museum, but with warm hearts at the sight of hundreds of devout pilgrims, gracious guards touching white scarves to sacred images, then returning the blessed item to grateful pilgrims, and monks carefully tending ancient Buddhist texts.




The 7th Century Johkang Temple (the most revered in Tibet) and the pilgrimage kora that circles it, provide a sharp contrast to the Potala Palace: these are vibrant, exciting, places, brimming with life and happiness. From sunrise until well after sunset, monks and throngs of pilgrims walk the circuit, spinning prayer wheels, murmuring chants, the most devout prostrating--lying full on the ground, their hands protected only by small wooden sliders or cardboard--advancing only the length of their bodies between each prostration. Others shop at the hundreds of small stalls that line the circuit, buying trinkets, prayer wheels, cymbals, scarves, mass-produced offerings, shoes, thankas, rugs, blankets, fake antiques, yarn, monk robes, horse bridles, jewelry (and more jewelry!), yak fur-lined jackets, silver and turquoise hair ornaments, prayer cushions, and more. Pilgrims arrive in Lhasa after traveling hundreds of miles by foot or in "pilgrim trucks" following century-old guidebooks to Tibet's sacred places. These devout Buddhists gain merit (sonam) or good luck (tashsi) by completing koras, stoking the twelve-foot tall incense burners with handfuls of pungent herbs, and making offerings at temples--kathaks (white ceremonial scarves), seeds, or one-mao notes--and by replenishing butter lamps with yak butter, and alter bowls with water or chang (barley beer). Joining the pilgrims are visitors from around the world, Tibetan, Chinese, and Muslim shopkeepers, and a smattering of bored Chinese policemen, chatting on mobile phones, ignored by the passing pilgrims.




Sound recordings -- Monks chanting in the Jokhang to a packed house of Tibetan pilgrims:

Jokhang Prayers, part 1 (8:00)

Jokhang Prayers, part 2 (6:52)

Jokhang Prayers, part 3 (5:02)






Sound recording: Walking the Jokhang Kora at Sunrise (8:24)





We visited the Tsamkhung Buddhist nunnery, a short walk from our hotel, and were directed up the stairs past a huge smoking incense burner to a dimly lit room on the 2nd floor. As our eyes adjusted to the change in brightness from the glaring sunlight outside, we could see 40 or 50 red-robed nuns sitting cross-legged in the center of the room, continuously chanting. Small beams of light came in from far above and there was a wonderful warm glow as we sat down and listened to the beautiful soothing sounds of their soft chanting voices, with bells and cymbals occasionally chiming in. The walls were brightly painted, with Buddha images all around. After about an hour, we received a blessing of holy tea (?), and made our way out into the brightly lit maze of side streets packed with pilgrims spinning prayer wheels, lost in their reverie...

Sound recording: Nuns Chanting at Tsamkhung (6:42)








Sound recording: Tsamkhung Prayers (4:34)

On our second visit, the nuns were in an upstairs library. They welcomed us in, and we sat, mesmerized, listening to their harmonious voices as they read their prayer books, occasionally stopping to smile or chat with us.

We then wandered downstairs, and watched while a group of nuns hand-printed prayers on thin paper, then wound these sheets into tightly rolled bundles, covered each bundle with yellow cloth, and glued the ends. Each bundle will be inserted in a prayer wheel and with each spin of the wheel, the prayers will be released to the heavens.














Founded in 1419, Sera monastery, 5km north of Lhasa, was (along with Drepung) one of Lhasa's two great Gelugpa monasteries. Once housing around 5000, it is currently home to several hundred monks.

At four different monasteries in Tibet, we watched and laughed as young monks debated, one monk standing while making his argument, then forcefully slapping his hands together as he made what seemed to be the decisive point, though the seated opponent always gazed back with a dubious look and continued the debate. These debates went on for hours, often in an inner courtyard under the shade of trees resplendent in fall foliage.

Sound Recording:

Debating practice, Sera Monastery (1:36)




Solar cookers boiling water for yak butter tea.

Drepung, 8km west of Lhasa, was at one time the world's largest monastery. Founded in 1426, it suffered attacks by the Tsang and Mongol Kings, but was left relatively unscathed by the cultural revolution. At the time of the Chinese invasion in 1951, Drepung's population was approximately 10,000 monks. Currently it is home to around 800 monks and is actively being rebuilt and resettled.





We arrived at Barkhor square at 6:30 am in total darkness (Beijing time is used all across China). The four western tourists and a crowd of excited Tibetan pilgrims piled onto the bus for the one and half hour ride to Ganden Monastery, 40 km east of Lhasa. The bus slowly climbed a long series of switchbacks, up a dusty dirt road to the 14,580' hilltop monastery, arriving just as the sun rose over the mountains. The air was crisp, the sky clear blue, and the high elevation left us breathless as we walked the kora above the monastery. There were stupendous views and many strange temples, some with rocks that are rubbed for their healing powers, others that are squeezed as a "karmic test," and in one area, pilgrims peer at a rock through a clenched fist to see visions.

The monastery was founded in 1409--the first Gelugpa monastery. Ganden means "joyous" and it evokes that feeling, even though much of it is in ruins. Because Ganden was the seat of political power, it suffered a lot of damage during the cultural revolution. It remains a political "hotbed" and was closed in 1996 when demonstrations erupted because the Chinese government banned all pictures of the Dalai Lama.


Sharing our Lonely Planet over yak butter tea with the monks in the monastery kitchen was a highlight of our trip.

Sound Recording: Mid-day prayer at Ganden Monastery (2:49)









Pilgrim-filled winding stone streets are, sadly, only found in Lhasa's shrinking Tibetan quarter. Lhasa (and Tibet in general) is dominated by the sprawl of Chinese "modernization" and urban development. There are heaps of ugly, totally incongruous government buildings, huge empty plazas, and hotels and shopping malls everywhere, filled with recent Chinese immigrants and Chinese tourists.

After traveling around Tibet for some time, it seems there is a rule somewhere that says: there must be at least one huge bland monstrosity next to any important traditional Tibetan temple, monastery, or village. This was the pattern, without fail, everywhere we went. Certainly the Chinese have no desire to blend in with the long tradition and aesthetic of Tibetan architecture.

With the newly opened railroad (the highest in the world) linking Beijing with Lhasa, Chinese immigration and development will increase at an even more frightening pace. We fear the fate of the Tibetan culture is uncertain.


Chengdu, China (plane) ► Lhasa, Tibet